Traditional Irish music is known around the world for its lilting melodies and unique style of singing. When Irish people hear traditional Irish music and songs, they just can’t help but dance! Plus, in Irish culture, different types of songs are written for different kinds of dances.
Just like good food is made of good ingredients, beautiful Irish dance music is created with amazing instruments! These are some of the traditional Irish instruments that make Irish culture so unique.
Let's take a look at some traditional Irish musical instruments.
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Did you know? The Irish fiddle is actually the exact same instrument as the violin, the name used for it just changes based on the genre of music that’s being played.
When it comes to classical and jazz music, it’s called a violin, but when it’s bluegrass, country, and folk music, which includes Irish music. The fiddle is the most popular instrument in most Irish music.
Fiddle playing varies from region to region in Ireland. In County Donegal, fiddle music boasts a distinctive staccato sound that inspires listeners to tap their feet to the magical rhythm of the music. In parts of Munster polkas and reels are often performed.
In mainstream American culture, it’s pretty rare that you meet someone who plays the harp. But in Ireland, this is a very important musical staple! It’s a particular type of harp called the Celtic harp, which is a triangular instrument.
The flowing melodies provide a sense of depth to songs that are led by more shrill instruments.
Here's an interesting fact - the harp is the official symbol of Ireland, and not the shamrock as most people expect.
Flute and Irish Tin Whistle
Speaking of more shrill instruments, the Irish wooden flute and the Irish tin whistle are two wind instruments that really take control of a song. They are both played by the singer blowing into them and covering the finger holes.
The bell-like tones of these instruments will really inspire you to dance! The Irish flute and penny whistle are two traditional instruments that often take over the high notes and play the lead.
The Irish language term for a tin whistle is feadóg, which is pronounced phonetically as fah-doe-g.
In Ireland you often find buskers playing a tin whistle on the side of a street to entertain a crowd. It's a wonderful easily portable instrument.
The late Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains tradtional Irish music group is probably Ireland's most famous tin whistler.
Irish musicians play a special kind of bagpipes that are distinct from the ones more closely associated with Scotland. Known as uileann pipes, they quite literally mean the pipes of the elbow. They get their name since the piper does not blow into a reed to fill them, but instead squeezes a bellows to pass air through the pipes.
The Uilleann Pipes can play two octaves, so they are very versatile. Uilleann is pronounced as ill-inn and it means elbow in Irish. These pipes are filled with air through a bellows squeezed at the elbow. They are held in the lap, and don’t need to be blown into. The holes for playing notes are on a pipe or reed that is held near the waist.
The piano accordion is well-known for being part of Italian and Mexican music, but it also makes its appearance in Irish music! This is another instrument that is pretty versatile and can either take the lead or provide background accompaniment.
It is worn around the neck, and has buttons and sometimes piano keys on the front.
The musician pulls the sides out, then pushes them back towards the middle to generate sound, while playing the buttons to create particular notes. It has a deep, bass-y sound, but can play some higher notes as well.
The concertina is like a small, hexagonal accordion with hand straps and buttons on the sides. It can be worn around the neck, but it can also be held by the hand straps.
The notes have a different sound than the ones played by the accordion, they are much higher, and there are never piano keys on concertinas. They are much more transportable and cheap than accordions due to their size.
In America, we know the banjo as representative of country and bluegrass music. However, it is also very common in Irish folk music.
Folk musicians can pair it with a lot of other string instruments, like the fiddle and mandolin. It adds a bit of twang that makes the Irish tunes gain that folk sound and feel more lively.
The Irish mandolin is a small stringed instrument that plays high notes.
It is often paired with other string instruments, and it also brings a sort of twang because of its wire strings, but has a crisper sound than the banjo.
The Irish bouzouki is a long-necked string instrument with a small, circular body.
It is similar to a guitar, with a higher range. It is also included in string ensembles, and is very nice for accompaniment and filling out the sound behind the more prominent instruments in Celtic music.
Irish music is also greatly enhanced by percussion! Irish musicians use a drum called a bodhrán (pronounced as bow-rawn as in taking a bow not a bow that you tie).
This percussion instrument is made of a wooden rim topped with animal skin on one side. This frame drum is usually made with curved wood, covered in goat skin.
Irish drummers hold it with their hand in their lap and play it with their hands, or more commonly with special mallets called beaters. Beaters often have 2 heads (one on each side,) so they can be shaken back and forth to play the drum.
All of these instruments are an important part of our Irish heritage, and have a significant influence on modern Irish music.
I’d love to hear your reactions: Which of these instruments are new to you? If you were going to learn to play Irish traditional music, which would you start out with? Which ones are the most important instruments in your opinion?
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
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